Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Last byte

World of Hackcraft

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.
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displays on suspended contraption, illustration

Let me introduce myself as who I really am rather than role-playing through one of my hundred avatars. I am Leigh Jenkins, a professional journalist for the gamer blog Highly Ludic, who mainly writes about developments in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, aka MMORPGs. My writing career began in 1997, when I first explored Ultima Online, which still exists nearly a quarter-century later, while many of the best subsequent games—including The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, and Fallen Earth—have gone out of business.

During the first few months of 2021, I had been storming through illegal rogue servers, looking for MMORPGs that had been shut down by the companies that owned them, such as Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes, cancelled in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Then I learned that the Defiance skirmish MMO, which had originally launched in 2013, was shutting down at the end of April, so I asked my readers if any of them planned to set up a rogue version.

Several of my adorable fans told me I was outdated; I should know that law-abiding hackers created an MMORPGMWM (MWM = Multi-World Maze) named Hackcraft—a virtual-reality version of the antique social media webring structure that predated Facebook. Unlike the old-fashioned rogue games, Hackcraft was legal because it assembled metaphors based on dozens of games rather than duplicating one and violating copyrights.

In any of Hackcraft's subgames, a user accepts a major quest arc, the completion of which opens the door to the next subgame on the ring. When I entered the hub, I needed to select a mystery to solve, and I chose:

"What is the name of the absolutely most significant computer ever created?"

The tutorial told me to seek the letter "G" in the quest arc of a game called Guild of the Rings, but it was not immediately obvious what that meant. Clicking the "GO" button hurled my avatar into the game, specifically into The Prancing Pony, a tavern where drunken avatars were singing,

"Far over the misty mountains grim, to dungeons deep and caverns dim."

Starting at Level 1, a player ventures into the dangerous world outside the tavern to collect resources, such as hops and barley to brew beer and other essential components of tavern life. Unfortunately, each resource is in a different location, guarded by increasingly powerful non-player enemies. Players with in a guild form "bands," not for fighting but for playing music (using the ABC scripting language) and for dancing like a prancing pony. I deduced that the way to find the "G" was to create virtual objects, so I developed crafting skills and hunted for the recipes required to make simple computers. I began with a sundial, discovering that the part that casts the shadow is a Gnomon (the "G" is not even pronounced). That was a sophisticated but false hypothesis. My second guess turned out to be correct: the letter being sought was not really a clue; upon building a "slipstick" or slide rule, I triggered this message: "You got G, now look for E in Elfdom."

Elfdom, a subgame in the amateur ring, had millions of players but a very narrow fantasy backstory. Elf Doom would have been a more appropriate name. In creating your avatar, you select from one of the long lists of races which are totally hostile to one another but are merely different varieties of elves. It is perfectly clear why the nature-loving Night Elves warred with the technocratic Blood Elves. But I never could fathom why the Dark Elves, High Elves, Half Elves, Wood Elves, Eth Elves, Grey Elves, Painted Elves, and Deep Elves hated each other so much. You would think that the 10 varieties of Elves, all played by people, would unite against the two computer-controlled enemy races, the Halflings and Hobbits. Each quest arc must be completed by a team uniformly comprising one type of elf—sneaking deep into enemy territory and often battling other elf teams to assassinate an enemy boss in a Halfling temple or Hobbit mathom house. Just as our raid team vanquished a Hobbit boss named Babbage, I got another clue in the text chat: "You got GE, now look for N in Narrational."

This amateur-programmed game was turgid in the extreme, lacking graphics and played via email. It consisted of one huge decision tree of If-Thens, each selection taking a verbose, text-based story in a different direction, with no battles or beautiful scenery to provide pleasure. The first decision concerned whether the narrative's main character would be "good and honest" (select A = A) or "bad and deceptive" (A = B). I chose the good path, which led nowhere, so I restarted as a bad character and always chose the worse alternative. When I reached the worst possible climax, step Z, I was surprised to earn the symbol "≠" meaning "not equal." After cursing and meditating, I returned to the very beginning, and instead of selecting A = A, or A = B, was now able to choose A ≠ A. I immediately earned:

"You have GEN, now seek I in Infernal." (I wondered if G-E-N referred to General Semantics, the linguistic philosophy that claimed nothing is itself?)

Oddly, Infernal was a dark occult horror show situated in a battle between two fleets of sci-fi spaceships, one operated by a cult having the uninformative name "This," and the other belonging to the equally irrational "Deji." One could play solo, as a character unimaginatively named Solo, or stumble across other players in a version where each avatar was assigned a short name composed of random letters, like Duck, Dark, or Darth. It did not take long to figure out that I needed to learn some mysterious magic spell which would enable travel faster than the speed of light, gravity to be switched on or off inside the spaceship, or a little robot resembling a garbage can to tell jokes that were actually funny. "Academy it is that you seek, Master GENI!" exclaimed a frog whose name was something like Day-Zero, apparently unrelated to any puzzle I had solved and suggesting that chaos ruled this galaxy.

Academy at first looked like a plagiarized version of Fallout 4. It was set in some institution of higher learning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after civilization had collapsed, but I found no other similarities. Avatars looking like college students sat around a table playing the equivalent of a card game on tablet computers. The system running the game distributed random fragments of code, like cards, but in these four suits: Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, and BASIC. Players had to understand all the code so they could group the fragments to make the best hand. For example, I made a full house when two fragments performed one function, such as Pascal and BASIC code displaying the same bar graph, and three other fragments performed another function, such as erasing a player's most recent file. That hand earned me the fifth letter, so I had G-E-N-I-A. Remarkably, with that clue, I was able to find the answer on Wikipedia, so I knew what I had to find in the final game: Computer Museum.

I opened the box to see six glorious, perforated Masonite disks, the brass jumpers and wires, batteries, and little light bulbs.

I searched through the museum's virtual halls, looking for a small cardboard box hidden among massive hardware junk. There! I opened the box to see six glorious, perforated Masonite disks, the brass jumpers and wires, batteries, and little light bulbs. The most marvelous computer of all time—the educational GENIAC, or "GENIus Almost-automatic Computer," which I had received for my birthday way back in 1956. Teenagers could assemble many different logical circuits to solve If-Then puzzles, play games, and ignite the sparks that would create the future world of computer science.

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